When future historians will look back at the late 20th and early 21st Century, one of the most remarkable features of the international system that they will note is the exponential growth of international institutions. At the beginning of the 20th Century there were only slightly more than 30 international intergovernmental organizations in the world and in the first decade after the end of World War II this number was still relatively low, with slightly more than 100 organizations. Yet, in 2016 the total number of international intergovernmental organizations has risen to a staggering 7,657 organizations! And this still excludes international agreements, conventions, informal groups of states and international non-governmental organizations. So, the total number of ‘international institutions’ – broadly defined – is even higher. All in all, today’s international system is characterized by a puzzling maze of thousands of international organizations, treaties, agreements, conventions, protocols and informal arrangements.
One way to make sense of this institutional maze is to examine international institutions in specific issue areas such as climate change, international trade or the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. In fact, a closer look at international institutions reveals that they tend to cluster around certain issue areas. In other words, there are usually several international institutions designed to address the same global issue or problem. The big question is, of course, if this matters at all. Maybe the growth of the number of international organization is merely a reflection of nation states learning that cooperating on certain issues or problems is more effective than trying to deal with them in isolation or, even worse, in competition? After all, intuitively, few people would doubt that international organizations or agreements are inherently a good thing. The more organizations and agreements there are at the international level, the easier it is to solve certain global issues or problems! Or is it?
In recent years, International Relations scholars have developed a new concept to come to grips with the maze of international institutions in different issue areas: ‘regime complexity’. This concept helps researchers to go beyond the traditional piecemeal approach of analysing individual organizations and agreements individually. Rather, it assumes that sets of international organizations and agreements in a certain issue area such as climate change or nuclear non-proliferation form a single system or ‘complex’ of interlinked organizations and agreements. In this way, the concept of regime complexity offers a comprehensive view of international organizations and agreements, which may provide new insights into the impact that international organizations and agreements have on solving global issues and problems. As Karen J. Alter and Sophie Meunier, two of the leading scholars on regime complexity, point out, ‘Scholars who study complexity note that within complex systems, knowledge of the elementary building blocks—a termite, a neuron, a single rule—does not even give a glimpse of the behavior of the whole, and may lead to faulty understandings of the building blocks themselves’.
In a recent paper that I presented at the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, I examined to what extent the concept of regime complexity actually helps us to understand the implications of international organizations and agreements in a concrete issue area, namely the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is widely recognized as one of the most serious global security issues. Nuclear non-proliferation is also a conceptually very useful issue area, as it is regulated by over 40 international organizations, agreements, conventions and protocols. Even experts lose easily count of organizations and agreements as diverse as the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
As can be expected from a system of international organizations and agreements as complex as the one that addresses nuclear non-proliferation, the impact of that system on the fight against the spread of nuclear weapons is complex, too. On the one hand, there exists strong evidence that the increasing complexity of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements has strengthened non-proliferation. Most notably, new institutions have often closed loopholes in the previously existing institutions. For example, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one of the international key agreements in the fight against nuclear proliferation, does not address the issue of exports of sensitive nuclear technologies or items to countries with potential nuclear weapon programmes. Yet, in 1974, only a few years after its entry into force, it became known that India was able to test a nuclear device using a civilian nuclear reactor that was built with technical expertise imported from Canada. Thus, India’s test, codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’, triggered the establishment of a new non-proliferation institution to prevent the use of exported civilian nuclear technology and expertise for military purposes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Another important advantage of complex sets of international organizations and institutions is that they can increase the commitment of nation states to an issue such as nuclear non-proliferation. Usually, the commitment of a state to an issue is seen as being stronger if it has signed up to several relevant international organizations and treaties rather than just one. In other words, one thing is to sign and ratify just the NPT, another thing is to sign and ratify the NPT, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the so-called Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On the other hand, however, it is forgotten all too often that complexity also creates a number of institutional problems. In my paper for the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association I highlighted three in particular: First, the system of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements has grown in such a way that it has only strengthened non-proliferation in a strict sense. Originally, however, the international non-proliferation commitment was seen as a ‘grand bargain’ between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. As part of this bargain, nuclear weapon states committed also to nuclear disarmament and the uninhibited access to peaceful nuclear energy. Yet, only very few of today’s relevant international organizations and agreements address either nuclear disarmament or nuclear energy promotion. Hence, the current system of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements undermines the basis of the ‘grand bargain’. At some point, frustrated non-nuclear weapon states may well conclude that the ‘grand bargain’ has failed.
Second, a complex system of organizations and agreements inhibits the free flow of crucial information. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency may have sensitive information that is relevant for the Nuclear Suppliers Group – and vice versa. But they usually do not share their information. Third, if there are many organizations and agreements addressing in one way or another the same global issue or problem, nation states tend to cherry pick those organizations and agreements that are most suitable for their narrow national gains rather than for addressing the global issue in the most effective way. In other words, by facilitating cherry-picking (or ‘forum-shopping’ in academic parlance) complexity undermines, once more, the ultimate goal of international organizations and agreements, in this case the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
All in all, while the increasing complexity of nuclear non-proliferation organizations and treaties has strengthened the regime as a whole so far, it has also caused new or exacerbated existing problems that should not be ignored. These problems may still get worse in the coming years and have the potential to undermine the very foundations on which international non-proliferation efforts are built.
Image: The IAEA in Vienna. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.